Guest opinion: Utah’s energy code needs to be a ‘hot topic’ in Utah

Few people talk about building codes, let alone building energy codes. Let’s face it, things like window efficiency and air ducts are not spicy topics. Talking about a set of regulations that governs the construction of our homes and commercial buildings will not get you invited to parties. But it’s a shame. After all, Utah is the fastest growing state in the nation, and with this growth comes a frenzy of new construction. Energy codes are exactly the kind of behind-the-scenes (or in this case, behind the walls) tools that can help manage this growth, save Utah families and businesses incredible amounts of money, and keep our energy rates low all while cleaning the air. 

If there was ever a time to make energy codes a hot topic, it’s now. For the first time in years, the Utah Legislature has the opportunity to update Utah’s energy codes for new homes and commercial buildings. Importantly, residential energy codes won’t come up for review again until 2027. The question remains, will our legislature seize this opportunity? 

We all have something to gain with updated energy codes. First, Utah’s residential energy code is out-of-date. Most homebuyers don’t realize that new homes built in Utah are not built to the latest energy code. Far from it. Utah’s current energy code is a slimmed down version of the 2015 energy code, called the International Energy Conservation Code or IECC.  Working from such an out-of-date code means our homes are needlessly wasting energy. We love granite countertops as much as the next person, but as homeowners and business representatives, we also need to keep an eye on our utility bills. Furthermore, as Utah’s elected leaders, our legislature needs to keep an eye on Utah’s growing energy demand. That’s where the new IECC comes into play in a big way. The 2021 IECC is estimated to save owners of new homes and buildings over $1 billion over the next 30 years while also reducing statewide energy demand. 

We’re not saying that updating energy code is a no-brainer. After all, new energy codes do come with an added cost to new homes, and builders will have to adjust to new standards. Balancing the costs with the benefits is critical in this decision, particularly for homeowners battling with affordability. Thankfully, a body of Utah building experts, the Uniform Building Code Commission, spent over a year pouring over the costs and benefits, using multiple analysis done by third-parties that analyzed the impacts on homeowners and commercial building owners. After all of this, the Commission officially recommended updating the energy code to the Utah Legislature. 

Here’s the great news. This study done on behalf of the U.S. Department of Energy shows that we can have dramatically better homes for a tiny fraction of the cost of that home.  On average, if you are buying a home built using the new energy code, you can expect about a $500 increase in your down payment. But, considering that you will be saving approximately $300 a year in energy bills, any increase will be paid off within 2-3 years. Moreover, a family living in a home built using the latest energy code will not only save money on energy bills, but will simply get to live in a healthier, more comfortable, better home.  

Lastly, we are not going rogue in supporting new energy codes for Utah. Homes and buildings play a role in our local air quality challenges. Updating energy code as a tactic to reduce pollution from energy waste has been called out as a pragmatic solution to improve Utah’s air quality by multiple groups including The Utah Foundation and the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute

If you are still reading this, we have hope. Maybe you will invite us to your next party? Or, maybe you’ll start thinking about how homes are built in Utah, and if we can do better. As long-time Utah residents that love our homes, and as business representatives that want to serve our community, we urge the Utah legislature to adopt the newest energy code for Utah. 

Liza Hart is the VP of Design and Sustainability for Gardnera full-service real estate company specializing in the development of office, multifamily, retail, industrial and medical buildings and Jarrett Capstick is a project manager and principal at Colvin Engineering Associates. He also serves on the Board of Governors for ASHRAE Utah Chapter.